In less than a week children will return to school. And yet, B.C.’s K-12 plans do not provide sufficient protections against a highly infectious airborne virus.
On Aug. 24, we learned that K-12 schools will require indoor masks for staff and students in grades 4-12, but not K-3 students despite evidence encouraging masks for children as young as two. Vaccinations will not be required for staff and eligible students over 12, even though vaccination is recommended and a high level of population immunity is required to exit the pandemic. No detailed information has been provided publicly to demonstrate systematic ventilation improvements. HVAC systems and upgrades vary widely by school district, and parents have a right to know the status of improvements.
In the previous three COVID-19 waves, B.C. took action through public health measures to reduce transmission. While responses should have been more proactive, eventually B.C. introduced effective measures to prevent infection and transmission that causes acute infection.
In previous waves, before vaccines were widely available, the primary concern was to prevent hospitalization and death among adults, especially more vulnerable seniors.
We must immediately approach this current wave with an elimination mindset, otherwise unvaccinated children and families will be infected in large numbers.
We are told by public health officials, including on the BC Centre for Disease Control website, that children ages 0-12 are at “low risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.” While this reflects very early thinking about the risks of COVID-19 in children, this statement is not supported by the research evidence today nor does it account for Delta’s increased transmissibility.
We also know that COVID-19 variants are fundamentally different from the original strain of COVID-19. And yet, we find that B.C.’s approach to pandemic management does not adequately reflect this new reality.
We have had scientific consensus for months now that COVID-19 is an airborne virus, and it is believed that Delta has become more effective at spreading rapidly because of the high viral loads that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people carry.
Put simply, the Delta variant is a game-changer. We have a "new" pandemic on our hands.
What does this mean for unvaccinated children?
The highly infectious Delta means more infections, more quickly, in more people, especially the unvaccinated. The BC COVID-19 Modelling Group, composed of academic researchers who have accurately analyzed each phase of the pandemic, warn that we could see a large number of infections in children.
Hospitalization and death are not the only serious effects of COVID-19. Long COVID affects both adults and children.
U.K. research found that 10 per cent of children aged 2-11 years and 13 per cent aged 12-16 years had at least one lingering symptom five weeks after infection. This research predates the Delta variant, and scientists are working to determine if Delta also causes more severe illness as pediatric hospitalizations have skyrocketed in many parts of the U.S.
What should be done in B.C. to protect children before school begins?
Fortunately, the recent provincial mask mandate is an important step. However, further action is required.
We need both very high levels of vaccination and public health measures to keep kids, families and staff safe:
• Mandatory masking for all K-12 students and staff, with guidance and provision of high-efficiency masks that filter aerosols
• Mandatory vaccination for eligible staff and students
• Provincial ventilation and air filtration standards including mobile HEPA units, and public reporting
• Physical distancing and small cohorts
• Remote learning options, like last year
• School vaccination clinics
• Accessible a/symptomatic testing, including take-home rapid tests and school contact tracing.
Many of these measures — including ventilation, masking, testing, and vaccination — should also apply to child-care settings.
We must mobilize as we did in previous waves to protect older British Columbians. We need public health officials and policymakers to ensure that unvaccinated kids do not bear the brunt of the Delta wave.
Our kids are the future. We must step up.